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Getting Dinner at the Beach

Some Laguna Beach tide pool visitors poach sea life not just to stock aquariums or as souvenirs, volunteer guards are finding.

March 29, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

The volunteer docents who organized a year ago to patrol Laguna Beach's tide pools had expected to find visitors trying to snatch aquatic souvenirs for home aquariums and bathroom decor.

They didn't expect the tide pools' crabs, mussels and sea urchins to be targeted for dinner tables as well.

The number of people harvesting the tide pools for seafood soup is small compared with the large number who trample, poke and remove the marine life, say lifeguards and docents. But the seafood scavengers, they worry, threaten more of the dwindling population of sea creatures that rely on the tide pools for survival.

"Whether you're eating it or stomping on it, it's all the same; you're killing a fragile part of the intertidal zone," said Mark Klosterman, chief of the Marine Safety Department in Laguna Beach.

A survey of Los Angeles County beaches found that people were more inclined to make souvenirs rather than soup from sea creatures they collected.

At Point Dume County Beach, "we haven't received any complaints [of poaching for edible sea life], and I know the residents watch their beaches like hawks," said lifeguard Capt. Dan Atkins.

In Laguna Beach, the twice-a-day low tides expose hundreds of tide pools hosting hermit crabs, sculpin fish, tiny periwinkle snails, ochre sea stars, spiny purple sea urchins and black mussels.

Tide pools have long been pillaged for crabs and snails for aquariums, and for mussels to use as bait. The food hunters were an unexpected source of consternation. The Laguna Beach Volunteer Tidewater Docents program was created last year by Fred Sattler to educate visitors about tide pools -- and laws that prohibit sea life thievery.

He recruited about 50 people to patrol the tide pools about the same time public access was improved to one series of pools, at a section of beach in South Laguna known as Treasure Island. The Montage Resort & Spa Laguna Beach was built there at the site of a former mobile home park. Docents also patrol the tide pools just north of Main Beach.

Almost everything on and in the tide pools is alive, said Sattler, including buckshot barnacles, whose shell is made of hard calcium, and sea lettuce and sea cabbage that cover the rocks.

But the real harvest bounty is sea urchins, mussels, two-spotted octopuses, limpets, lined shore crabs and turban snails, which can grow to more than four inches. This is the stuff, Sattler said, that often is destined to be fish stew.

None of these creatures would be found in restaurants, Sattler and others say, but "some of the cultures -- Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese -- use some of the tide pool creatures as food," said Klosterman.

Even a skimpy seafood meal of that sort could be very costly. The Laguna Beach tide pools are a protected marine preserve, and anyone caught removing or harming marine life faces a $1,000 fine.

"The dollar sign is very powerful" as a deterrent, said docent Jo Hanna Sisson.

"None of [the people] are mean," she added. "They don't mean to break the law. They don't know the law."

Another 15 people have been added to the roster of docents, but Sattler said the program could use twice as many. There are not enough docents to patrol the tide pools at every daytime low tide -- let alone at night -- and they are easily outnumbered by the number of beach visitors. On a winter weekend day, more than 200 people can visit.

"The most important aspect of Laguna Beach is the beach and the tide pools and the ocean," he said. "That's what defines Laguna."

The volunteers, trained in the laws and regulations governing protected areas and the biology of tide pools, work three-hour shifts. When they go on duty, they pick up their work gear -- a backpack with educational brochures, data collection materials and a cell phone -- and are identified by their T-shirts.

"If you ask somebody to comply and they don't, you go away ... and call the lifeguard, and they come over and they can cite them," Sisson said. "We're not police, we're educators."

The efforts have become more urgent, Sattler said, because the tide pools "are a mere shadow of what they used to be."

His wife, Jan, who grew up in Laguna Beach, remembers tide pools with abundant numbers of tiny black abalone shells, moray eels around the kelp in the cracks just below the tide pools, and fewer varieties of limpets.

It's sad, she said, that people continue to harm the diverse ecosystem.

"We are going to come to a point where creatures are going to lose a foothold and we are going to be in trouble," she said.

Had docents been around 10 years ago, her husband said, "we would have raised the awareness of the fragility and importance of tide pools earlier. We would have had 10 years more of education and protection."

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